Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

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The towns, the cities and Trump

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Image from kinziehotel.com.

Love this article in the latest New York magazine examining the growing political split between city and country. (Even Boise, Idaho, had some overwhelming Democratic strongholds.) It makes a point that hasn’t been talked about enough: That it wasn’t so long ago that cities, now considered overwhelmingly Democratic, once leaned Republican, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Columbus, Ohio.

What changed? Many things, author Justin Davidson writes. If white flight hollowed out cities in the ’70s — with suburbs becoming GOP bastions — revitalized downtowns have brought in new influxes of multicultural and youthful residents in recent years. That’s also made inner-ring suburbs more Democratic. (And, yes, many cities have also become more expensive and less affordable for the middle class — but gentrification is a topic for another day.)

But, for me, perhaps the most intriguing detail Davidson unearths is the importance of mass transit in forging liberal bonds:

Density makes towns more liberal. So does public transit. A band of dark, Clinton-heavy blue follows the Metra commuter rail line from downtown Chicago south to University Park, where it dead-ends in a field of red. Milwaukee’s bus system extends west to 124th Street and north to the county line, and those borders define political boundaries, too: Beyond the bus routes, the map turns from blue to red, literalizing Wisconsin’s dramatic divide. In the Bay Area, tendrils of blue radiate out along train tracks into the deep-red heartland of the San Joaquin Valley. Interstate 5 runs north-south without disturbing the political landscape, but 40 miles east, Amtrak links Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield — each one an isolated dab of blue.

It’s not clear what accounts for this political force field that weakens with every mile from City Hall but that’s carried from center to center along transit lines. Do people with strong political views choose to live in like-minded communities, or do the places people choose to live form their opinions about how society should work? Which comes first: real estate or ideology? Either way, the dynamic behaves like an ideological centrifuge, distributing liberals and conservatives in complex but not random patterns.

One of the overall questions of the article is how Donald Trump, born and raised in New York, became so appealing to — and, to some extent, part of — an anti-urban and generally Republican crowd. One of Davidson’s suggestions is that Trump has seldom has had to mix with the city in which he made his name — he’s spent his life in private cars, limos and helicopters. He also came up in 1970s New York, when the city was a poster child for decay. (I’ve seen it written elsewhere that he also grew up talking to the outer-borough hardhats employed by his father, real-life Archie Bunkers who watched New York’s ’60s and ’70s decline and disapproved of its increasingly polyglot politics.)

If only he’d ridden the E and F trains more often. Or maybe he did and they looked like the ones in “The Warriors.”

Atlanta has world-class traffic

Downtown Atlanta
Image from WSBTV.com.

News item:

To no Atlanta commuter’s surprise, the metro recently ranked among the top most congested cities in the world, according to a new report by transportation analytics firm INRIX.

According to INRIX’s 2016 Global Traffic Scorecard, Atlanta ranked eighth in the world for congestion with the average commuter spending 70.8 hours in traffic each year.

Good to see that, along with having the world’s busiest airport, the Region Too Busy To Invest In Mass Transit also has some of the world’s worst traffic. We are an international city after all!

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Sunday read: Ne’er the twain shall meet?

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Image from Mapio.
I’m a city boy: Born in New York, raised in New Orleans, a resident of Atlanta for the last half of my life. The smallest place I ever lived for longer than a summer was Ann Arbor, Michigan, a sizable college town. I love cities: I love their vitality, their diversity, their amazing infrastructure. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a municipality smaller than 100,000 people. (I’m not counting suburbs; living in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is still very much living in New York City’s orbit.)

So I have almost no common ground with the residents of Connersville, Indiana.

Connersville is a town of about 13,500 in east-central Indiana. It’s perhaps 70 miles but a world away from Indianapolis, the state capital and center of a metro area of more than 1.7 million. Eight hundred fifty thousand live in the city itself. If I were living in Indiana, I’d definitely live in Indianapolis. (And I’d probably drive to Chicago regularly.)

I’m not alone. The United States has become very much an urban-rural country, with a chasm of an urban-rural divide. As noted in a recent Atlantic article, “America’s Great Divergence,” Hillary Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties in the U.S.

That, of course, was not enough to win the presidency. Donald Trump overwhelmingly won rural America; 72 percent of Fayette County, where Connersville is the county seat, voted for him.

“America’s Great Divergence” is my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: What makes a hero?

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Image of Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” from Jeff Widener/AP via Allenvandermeulen.org.

Years ago, around the time of the State of the Union address, I pitched a story about people who had committed heroic acts. I particularly wanted to interview Larry Skutnik, the man who dove into the Potomac’s frigid waters to save the life of a passenger after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in 1982. A few weeks later, he was in the audience at Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union.

I never got ahold of Skutnik, other things got in the way, and the story was never done.

(To its credit, Politico found him last year. He turned out to be rather crusty and quite prescient.)

Mr. Skutnik was one kind of hero — the kind who, on the spur of the moment, performs a selfless deed. But there are other types. Humane leaders who maintain and proclaim their ideals in the face of criticism and violence. Bold explorers who take off for places unknown. Scientists who toil in anonymity while coming up with a breakthrough.

In these parlous times, when the world is either retreating from itself or suffering from anger and distress, I can’t help but wonder: Will some new heroes emerge?

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Urgent: The sun rose today

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Image from Getty Images via New York magazine.

Per the Constitution by way of the 20th Amendment, at noon today Donald J. Trump took the oath of office and became the 45th president of the United States of America.

The earth did not open up to reveal hellfire and sulfurous caverns, nor did the clouds part for heavenly trumpets.

The temperature in Washington was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was cloudy with a band of rain moving through town. A friend tells me it’s been raining on and off with gray skies. It was a winter’s day.

Anyone who’s read this blog (both of you) know that I’m not a fan of the new president. I worry about his unpredictability and impulsiveness. I cringe at his bullying need for dominance. I disagree with many of the positions he’s espoused and with the stands of many of his cabinet appointees.

I find myself seeking comfort in one of the watchwords of the Jewish people — not the Shema, but a song from the great bard Mel Brooks, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”

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Sunday read: The Ayn Rand society

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Image from Barnes & Noble.

Many years ago, I was assigned to write an article based on questionnaires given to a few dozen prominent figures in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta. One of the questions asked what the respondents’ favorite books were.

Number One, far and away, was the Bible.

Number Two? “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.

I always thought this was a juxtaposition for the ages. (Apparently, it wasn’t exceptional; the Book-of-the-Month Club and Library of Congress got the same results when they did a survey in 1991.) On the one hand, you had a book of stories that included perhaps the most selfless person ever, a man who spoke in parables and aphorisms. On the other was a book that extolled selfishness and culminated in an over-the-top 50-page speech that summarized Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.

How can you love both?

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Jon Stewart: ‘This is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other’

Jon Stewart was on “CBS This Morning” with Charlie Rose Thursday, talking about the election and what it revealed.

As always, he proved himself to be as insightful as anybody on the scene — perhaps more so, because he’s nothing if not honest with himself and doesn’t talk in that stentorian, overly dramatic cable-news tone.

Somebody should give this guy a show.

‘There is no longer any pretense that the America social fabric is a single cloth’

A letter to The New York Times by Edward Warren, a former Air Force nuclear weapon launch officer:

To the Editor:

Too many people are looking at this election through the wrong lens. They believe that electing Donald Trump was a decision point. They are wrong. Electing Mr. Trump was the manifestation of a split that already existed in our country.

I have spent the last year building a cabin in northern New Hampshire and have gotten to know my neighbors. Talking to them has made one thing clear to me: The identity of being an American, the “social fabric,” has been slowly tearing for years, if not decades. What makes these friends feel American and what makes my liberal friends feel American are two completely different cloths.

While my Harvard Kennedy School classmates tend to talk about microaggressions and systemic bias, my rural neighbors deal with opioid addiction, unfulfilling jobs and PTSD from a war they fought for a country that seems to be moving on without them.

This country needed a world-class tailor to stitch these red and blue fabrics into a proud American flag, but that wasn’t a skill set that either of our candidates possessed. And without a tailor on the ballot, America chose a candidate who didn’t mind ripping the last threads apart.

There is no longer any pretense that the America social fabric is a single cloth. And while that is a painful discovery, it is the first critical step in the long process of patching together a new American identity. Let’s get started.